Antony J. Blinken
delivered 27 July 2022, Press Briefing Room, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
SecState Blinken: Full house. Good to see.
This week, President Putin's war on Ukraine entered its sixth month. Costs continue to climb -- thousands of civilians killed or wounded; 13 million Ukrainians forced to flee their homes; historic cities literally pounded into rubble; food shortages, skyrocketing food prices around the world -- all this because President Putin was determined to conquer another country.
He's failed in that goal. Ukraine has not and will not be conquered. It will remain sovereign and independent. As this war stretches on, the courage and strength of Ukraine's military and its people become even more evident and even more extraordinary. They will do whatever it takes to protect their homes, their families, their fellow citizens, their country. The United States and our allies and partners will continue to stand with them and help provide precisely what they need to defend their freedom.
In the coming days, I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the war began. I plan to raise an issue that's a top priority for us: the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home. We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal. And I'll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution.
I'll also raise the matter of the tentative deal on grain exports that Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the United Nations reached last week. We hope this deal will swiftly lead to Ukrainian grain being shipped again through the Black Sea and that Russia will follow through on its pledge to allow those ships to pass.
This has been the focus of the world's attention for months, including a few weeks ago at the meeting of the G20 foreign ministers in Bali, where one foreign minister after another urged Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russia to stop blocking the grain. So this agreement represents a positive step forward.
That said, there's a difference between a deal on paper and a deal in practice. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are waiting for these ships to set forth from Ukraine's ports and for millions of tons of grain and other crops to reach world markets. If the Kremlin signed this deal to look reasonable to the world, without any intention of following through, we'll know that soon enough.
My call to Foreign Minister Lavrov will not be a negotiation about Ukraine. Any negotiation regarding Ukraine is for its government and people to determine. As we've said from the beginning, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.
Beyond these developments, now that we've reached the half-year mark, let's take a step back and consider the state of the war and what we expect to come next.
In the Donbas region, where Russia concentrated its forces after failing to take Kyiv this spring, the fighting remains intense. The modest progress that Russian troops have made there has come at huge cost in both lives and materiel. Meanwhile, Ukraine is using all its defensive capabilities to hit back hard, bolstered by the more than $8 billion in security assistance from the United States since the beginning of this Administration.
As we look ahead, what the world has heard recently from Russia's leaders is raising new alarms.
Last week, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the Kremlin's goals in Ukraine had expanded. Now they seek to claim more Ukrainian territory, beyond the Donbas.
This is the latest in a series of evolving justifications and ever-shifting goals.
In the beginning, Russia said that the purpose of the war was to “denazify” Ukraine -- a false charge aimed at delegitimizing Ukraine's democracy.
They said the real threat was somehow posed by NATO, a purely defensive alliance that made efforts to engage Russia for years but was rejected, and that helped safeguard peace, stability, and prosperity across Europe for decades, to the benefit of Russia, among many other nations.
Then they said the war was to protect ethnic Russians living in Donbas from genocide, before relentlessly targeting the largest Russian-speaking city in Ukraine, Kharkiv. The only one responsible for killing ethnic Russians in Ukraine is President Putin.
What this is about and has always been about is President Putin's conviction that Ukraine is not an independent state and belongs to Russia. He said it flat-out to President Bush in 2008, and I quote: “Ukraine isn't a real country,” end quote. He said it in 2020, and I quote: “Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same people,” end quote. Last month, he said that when Peter the Great waged war on Sweden, he was simply taking back what belonged to Russia, and now Russia is again looking to take back what's theirs.
President Putin has been foiled in his efforts to erase Ukraine's sovereignty and independence. But now Moscow is laying the groundwork to annex more Ukrainian territory. From downgraded U.S. intelligence, as well as information available in the public domain, we can see that they're following the same playbook that they used back in 2014.
They're installing illegitimate proxy officials. They're working to establish branches of Russian banks in areas they control, set the ruble as the local currency, take over broadcasting towers, force residents to apply for Russian citizenship, sabotage internet access for local residents as well.
All of this to consolidate their power over these regions.
Our intelligence also shows that Russia is using filtration centers in eastern Ukraine and western Russia to detain, to interrogate, and in some cases abuse thousands of Ukrainians. Some are allowed to remain in Russian-occupied Ukraine. Some are forcefully deported to Russia. Some are sent to prisons. Some simply vanish.
Here's what we expect to see next: Russia-installed leaders will hold sham referendums to manufacture the fiction that the people in those places want to join Russia. Then they'll use those false votes to claim that the annexation of these regions is legitimate. We must and we will act quickly to make clear to Russia that these tactics will not work.
Annexation by force the territory of a sovereign and independent country is a gross violation of the United Nations Charter. Members of the international community that have committed to uphold the charter and international law have a responsibility to denounce these plans by the Russian Government and to make clear they will never recognize these illegal acts. Otherwise, no one can claim to be surprised when Russia follows through on its plans -- or if other countries follow suit in the future.
A few days ago, Foreign Minister Lavrov said, and I quote, “We are determined to help the people of eastern Ukraine to liberate themselves from the burden of this absolutely unacceptable regime,” end quote.
By what right can Russia claim this? Ukraine is not their country. The people of Ukraine democratically elect their own leaders. The Government of Russia has no say in that whatsoever. The right belongs to the Ukrainian people, and the Ukrainian people alone.
Despite these deeply troubling developments, we should not lose sight of the broader picture. NATO is stronger, more united, and poised to grow. Nearly one-third of NATO members have already ratified Sweden and Finland's accession protocols. We appreciate the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's swift action to advance those protocols; we hope the full Senate will act quickly to do the same.
Many countries beyond Europe have condemned Russia's aggression and are holding Moscow to account. The Ukrainian people are more determined than ever to defend their homeland, preserve their culture. All of these developments refute the Kremlin.
Economically, the sanctions we've imposed on Russia to end its aggression are having a powerful and also growing effect.
Now, Moscow has been cherry-picking economic data to support President Putin's insistence that everything is fine and the Russian economy is going strong. It's simply not true.
The Kremlin says that global businesses haven't really pulled out of Russia. In fact, more than 1,000 foreign companies -- representing assets and revenue equal to more than a third of Russia's GDP -- have stopped operations in Russia. Many of Russia's best and brightest have left as well, including highly educated professionals in critical fields, like energy and technology.
They say that Russia is replacing lost imports from the West with imports from Asia. In fact, imports into Russia have dropped more than 50 percent this year, and imports from China, for example, aren't making up the difference in quantity or quality, especially for high-end components. What that also means is that Russia can't manufacture products for Russian citizens or for export, and will increasingly lose markets overseas.
They say that the government is running a budget surplus because of high energy prices. In fact, the budget is in deficit, and Russia can't spend the oil revenues it has acquired on the imports it wants because of sanctions.
They say that the Kremlin has plenty of sovereign wealth. In fact, half of that money -- half of that money -- is frozen overseas.
They say that domestic consumption is still strong in Russia. In fact, consumer spending has plummeted.
They say that the ruble is the world's strongest performing currency. In fact, the currency market is controlled by the Kremlin, Russian households are restricted from converting rubles to dollars, the ruble is trading at a much lower volume than before the war.
So, though the Kremlin is working hard to paint a picture of economic stability, the facts show otherwise. The powerful impact of sanctions will grow and compound over time.
Though President Putin will likely claim that this war was a resounding success, the world can see that it has weakened Russia profoundly.
President Zelenskyy has made clear that the war will end through diplomacy. We agree. The United States is ready to support any viable diplomatic effort. Unfortunately, Moscow has given no indication that it's prepared to engage meaningfully and constructively, and we're under no illusion that that's going to change anytime soon. If and when the time comes, we will bring the full weight of American diplomacy to bear.
In the meantime, we'll continue to do all that we can to strengthen Ukraine's position on the battlefield so it has the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.
From here in Washington and in all of my travels, I'll continue to discuss all of this with our partners and allies -- supporting a sovereign, independent Ukraine; resolving the food security crisis; and how we can help create the conditions for a diplomatic resolution.
Last week, as you know, I had the privilege of welcoming Ukraine's first lady, Olena Zelenska. She came to the State Department. I told her that the United States will not waiver in our support for the Ukrainian people. That was true six months ago; it's true today; it will be true long after this war, this aggression is over.
With that, happy to take some questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, there are reports that the Administration has decided that this substantial offer is to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. That's a big offer. Just last week, Bill Burns called him a creep in an interview with me. But you want to get Griner and Paul Whelan out, so what is the prospect of getting Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner out by making such a big trade, arguably over the opposition of the Justice Department -- he's serving a 20 -- or 5-year sentence. And what can you accomplish in a conversation with Lavrov to try to get this grain deal locked in, since they bombed Odessa within 24 hours of agreeing to the deal? How can you trust anything that Lavrov and the Russians agree to?
SecState Blinken: Thanks, Andrea. When it comes to our efforts to secure the return home of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, you'll understand that I can't and won't get into any of the details of what we proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now.
Q: Can you talk about why you would make such an important -- why you would put what you call a substantial offer on the table?
SecState Blinken: So here's what I can say about this. First, as I mentioned, we've conveyed this on a number of occasions and directly to Russian officials. And my hope would be that, in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home. We have two imperatives when it comes to arbitrarily, wrongfully detained Americans anywhere in the world, including in Russia, including in the cases of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. And I say this because, more than unfortunately -- horrifically -- this is a practice, as you know, that many countries engage in and one that we are resolutely working to end, and I'll come back to that in a minute.
But we have two objectives. We of course want to see those who were wrongfully detained be released and be able to return home. At the same time, it's important that we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice. So we're working concertedly on both.We've demonstrated with Trevor Reed -- came home a few months ago -- that the President is prepared to make tough decisions if it means the safe return of Americans. At the same time, we are working with partners around the world to use all of the relevant tools at our disposal, including some that were announced just recently in the executive order that the President released to respond to and impose costs on those who engage in this practice. And I believe we can actually fulfill both imperatives.
And let me just say this as well: I think you can expect to hear me in the weeks and months ahead speak more to the efforts that we're making to reinforce this global norm against arbitrary detention to deter countries from doing this in the first place.
Mr. Price: Matt.
Q: Can you speak to the grain --
Mr. Price: [Off-mic.]
SecState Blinken: Oh, I'm sorry, the grain, I apologize, I didn't get to, Andrea -- the second part of the question. Look, Andrea, it was incredibly powerful when we were in Bali a few weeks ago at the G20 to see foreign ministers from around the world demand that Russia end its blockade of Odessa and of the grain that has been blocked in Ukraine for six months -- more than 20 million tons. And minister after minister did this from countries around the world geographically to such an extent that Foreign Minister Lavrov decided not to return for the rest of the session that the G20 foreign ministers were holding.
And then I think the steps that we've seen Russia take in at least agreeing on paper to allow grain to leave Ukraine is in response to the pressure that Russia is feeling not just from us, not just from G7 countries or even G20 countries, but from countries around the world who are saying --whatever they think about anything else -- end this blockade. Allow the grain to leave. Allow us to feed our people. Allow prices to come down.
But the test, of course, now is whether there's actual implementation of the agreement. That's what we're looking at. We'll see in the coming days whether what Russia signed it's serious about and whether the grain gets out. That's what we're looking toward. The bombings that you saw the other day -- I mean, step back for a second. Irrespective of what they were aiming at, by what right does Russia have to bomb anything in Ukraine, or anything in Odessa, or anything in the port? None. Zero. Anything it's doing is to further its efforts to conquer Ukraine, which have and will fail.
But in the case of grain specifically, what we need to see -- what we're looking to but what the world is looking to, more important -- is whether those ships begin to sail, whether the grain starts to move. We'll find out in the next few days.
Q: Thanks. Happy summer, Mr. Secretary.
SecState Blinken: Thank you.
Q: Happy Wednesday.
SecState Blinken: Thank you as well.
Q: And perhaps most importantly, happy birthday to the State Department. Today is -- I believe is the birthday, right?
Mr. Price: Two hundred and thirty-three years.
SecState Blinken: Where's the cake?
Q: I don't know, I was expecting you to bring one out.
SecState Blinken: We'll come back with it. Thank you.
Q: So two things, but they'll be real brief. One, when you talk about this substantial proposal, can you -- I realize you won't get into the specific details of it, but does it involve a swap? Think along the lines of what was done for Trevor Reed.
SecState Blinken: Because I want to make sure that the proposal that we put forward has a good chance to advance, I'm just not going to get into it in public.
Q: All right. Secondly, for the last couple of months -- well, last six months now -- you have been talking about how Russia is isolated internationally, and yet we see Foreign Minister Lavrov jetting off around Africa and the Middle East and President Putin going to Tehran, and say what you want about him having -- only going to Iran. They make the case that they're not isolated, and now you're about to have this conversation with them. So what does that say about the Administration's efforts to isolate Russia when you are actually now reaching out to them to talk about the issues?
SecState Blinken: Matt, in terms of some of the travels that the foreign minister, for example, is engaged in, what I see is a desperate game of defense to try somehow to justify to the world the actions that Russia has taken both with its aggression in general against Ukraine as well as, more specifically, its blockade of Ukrainian ports and its denying to the world at a critical time the grain, the wheat, the food that it needs. So they're doing everything they can to somehow justify what they're doing at a time when we're hearing from virtually every corner of the world an insistence that Russia stop this blockade and allow the grain to leave.
So no doubt Foreign Minister Lavrov will share some interesting views on the war, Russia's aggression, as well as on grains. For example, one of the things that Russia has been doing is blaming on sanctions the challenges of getting Russian grain out of Russia when, in fact, as everyone knows and as we make clear repeatedly, the sanctions that we've imposed on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine from day one exempted wheat, exempted food products, exempted shipping and insurance necessary to move those out of Russia. So that's a fabrication. I'm sure it's one that will be repeated, but it's one that we will continue to debunk.
But what I see in what they're doing is, again, desperately trying to explain the fact that a food crisis that has gone from making 100 million people food insecure three years ago to about 160 million people food insecure during COVID to now well over 200 million because of Russia's blockade of Ukraine's ports -- this is somehow trying to justify what's unjustifiable. The only way that Russia can fully address the concerns of the world -- look, the ideal way would be for it to stop the war, end the aggression. But short of that, end the blockade. There's a deal on the table to do that. What's going to be much more important than what Foreign Minister Lavrov says on his travels is what Russia actually does in implementing the agreement. That's what the world is looking for.
Mr. Price: Felicia.
Q: Going back to your discussions with the Russians on the substantial proposal, any -- what's been the response from them up until this point?
SecState Blinken: Well, I'm not going to characterize it. Again, my interest and my focus is on making sure that to the best of our ability we get to -- get to yes, and we --
Q: Do you feel that -- sorry.
SecState Blinken: And I don't want to qualify it. Look, one of the things that happens is this, and I mentioned in response to Andrea a minute ago: We're very focused on getting Brittney and Paul home. At the same time, I'm also focused every single day on arbitrarily detained Americans in more than half a dozen countries around the world. We have a team that works on this 24/7 led by Roger Carstens. This is, for me, an issue of utmost importance. It's something that I see as fundamental to my own responsibilities in this job: looking out for the men and women of this department, looking out for any American who is arbitrarily detained abroad or otherwise needs our help when they're overseas. And I say this because this is something we are working every single day, and most of the time we're working it quietly behind the scenes, for obvious reasons. And I would say just because you don't see us doing something or you don't hear us talking about it doesn't mean it's not happening. On the contrary. This is something that -- bringing people home, bringing Brittney home, bringing Paul home. This is something that we're focused on 24/7, seven days a week.
Mr. Price: Alex.
Q: Mr. Secretary, let me get a comment on increasing calls to the Administration to [inaudible] state sponsor of terrorism. If you ask anybody in Ukraine, they will tell you what Russia is doing every single day -- its scope of its brutality -- if you compare with the countries that already have been designated -- North Korea, Iran and Syria will maybe not [inaudible]. So what are we waiting for?
SecState Blinken: So on this, a few things. First, I'm obligated, the department is obligated to follow the law. Criteria against which we make this determination are defined by Congress. So that's what we're looking at. And our task is to try to take these criteria that Congress has established and compare them against the facts to make sure that the facts in a particular situation actually meet the criteria that are established in law.
Meanwhile, as we look at that, we're aligned with dozens of countries around the world across four continents on the most powerful sanctions, export controls, that I think have ever been levied. We've also curtailed international assistance and foreign aid. And the costs that have been imposed on Russia by us and by other countries are absolutely in line with the consequences that would follow from designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. So the practical effects of what we're doing are the same.
More broadly, I would just say this. We've methodically ejected Russia from international -- from the international economic order -- I talked about that a little earlier; most favored nation status and borrowing privileges from international financial institutions gone; we've restricted its ability to access its frozen central bank funds, to make debt payments; and what you've seen is a powerful impact and a growing impact on Russia's economy and Russia's economic prospects going forward. So in terms of the impact we're having, it is very much in line with anything that the SST designation would enable us to do. We're basically doing everything that we would need to do and want to do.
So again, what we're focused on is making sure that we are meeting the law and the criteria set out in the law, and making sure we're having the strongest possible impact.
Mr. Price: We have time for one final question. Kylie.
Q: Thanks. Secretary, I'm wondering -- I know you don't want to get into the details of this proposed deal that you guys have put on the table. But can you detail President Biden's role in putting that offer to the Russians? Was he involved? Did he sign off?
And then my second question is: With you expected to speak with the Russian foreign minister in the coming days, aren't the Russians getting exactly what they wanted here in detaining Americans: getting a phone call from the Secretary of State over these detained Americans while this war wages on in Russia? Why not continue these conversations quietly instead of in this public way, where the Russians get this win of having a conversation with the U.S. Secretary of State?
SecState Blinken: Thanks. Kylie, in terms of the President, of course he was not only directly involved, he signs off on any proposal that we make and any -- and certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case.
Second, there is in my mind utility in conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us. And as I mentioned, these include securing the return home of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. They also include, as I've mentioned and I would expect to raise, following through on the grain agreement because what we're seeing and hearing around the world is a desperate need for food, a desperate need for prices to decrease. And if we can help through our direct diplomacy encourage the Russians to make good on the commitments they've made, that will help people around the world, and I'm determined to do it.
And then, as I mentioned earlier, I think it's very important now that we see what Russia's next plan is -- that is, the annexation of more Ukrainian territory -- that the Russians, Foreign Minister Lavrov, hear directly from me on behalf of the United States that we see what they're doing, we know what they're doing, and we will never accept it. It will never be legitimized. There will always be consequences if that's what they do and that's what they try to sustain.
So we make a judgment in every instance where we think our diplomacy can hopefully advance our interests and values, including direct engagement. We make judgments about when it makes sense to talk about it in public, and as a general proposition, I believe in as much transparency as we possibly can have, and sometimes we make judgments that we're going to keep conversations quiet.
So in this instance, I thought it was important to make clear that on these issues -- the detention of our American citizens, the food crisis the world is facing because of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, and the plans that Russia now has to pursue the annexation of Ukrainian territory -- that our Russian counterparts hear directly from me.
Mr. Price: Thank you, everyone.
SecState Blinken: Thanks, everyone.
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